An Alberta-based freelance journalist and online publication The Narwhal have launched a lawsuit against the RCMP over her arrest while covering the protests on Wet’suwet’en territory in Northern B.C. in the fall of 2021.
Amber Bracken, an award-winning photojournalist from Edmonton, was on assignment for The Narwhal at the time, was reporting on the ongoing dispute between Coastal GasLink Pipeline and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their supporters.
The lawsuit seeks a court declaration that Bracken’s constitutional rights to liberty and freedom of expression were unlawfully breached when police arrested her during an operation to enforce an injunction granted to the pipeline company.
Bracken and documentary filmmaker Michael Toledano were two of 15 people taken into custody when police raided the Tiny House on the Morice West Forest Service Road west of Prince George on Nov. 19, 2021.
“I felt kidnapped. I have never been arrested before, and it’s the best word I can think of to describe being taken so abruptly from my life, and my work and in violation of my charter rights,” Bracken said in front of the B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver Monday morning.
“I had been reporting on this national story for years, but that day I was forced to become part of it.”
The claim filed in B.C. Supreme Court Monday argues Bracken didn’t breach the injunction because she was there as a journalist and the RCMP was notified that she was a member of the media before, during and after her arrest.
She said she was already behind the boundary of an exclusion zone police set up as part of their operation, and that on the morning of the arrests, she was inside a Tiny House, which she had chosen as the best vantage point for taking photos.
Bracken said officers arrived by helicopter and emerged from the woods to surround the structure, breaking down the door with an axe and chainsaw.
“Throughout this whole ordeal I was prevented from publishing my work,” Bracken said.
She also recalled how she was taken to the RCMP detachment in Houston and kept overnight in Smithers, before being brought to Prince George and detained for another two days.
“As a photojournalist, my role is to witness events. I have to be present. I have to be able to see clearly in order to do my job,” she said.
Carol Linnit, the co-founder and executive editor of The Narwhal, said both Bracken and the publication took multiple precautions to ensure the RCMP were made aware of her presence at the site.
She said The Narwhal had written to the RCMP the day before Bracken’s arrest to alert them to her presence, that Bracken brought a letter of assignment from The Narwhal in her pocket, and that she had press tags attached to her camera equipment, along with two professional-grade cameras strapped around her neck.
“Amber took every reasonable step to identify herself as a journalist before, during and after her arrest,” Linnit said.
“The arrest and detainment of Amber Bracken should never have happened.”
At the time, the RCMP said the arrests were made as part of the enforcement of the B.C. Supreme Court injunction.
Linnit said Bracken’s arrest was one of the latest in a string of similar incidents, pointing to (what she called) the RCMP’s use of illegal exclusion zones at the Fairy Creek blockades on Vancouver Island, which she said prevented journalists from being able to report on arrests of demonstrators.
None of the claims have been tested in court and statements haven’t yet been filed in response to the lawsuit, which lists the B.C. and federal governments, RCMP Chief Supt. John Brewer and three unknown RCMP officers as defendants.
The Narwhal did not file the lawsuit solely for its own team and Bracken, “but to clear a path for all journalists in Canada to do their work without risk of police interference,” editor-in-chief Emma Gilchrist told the news conference Monday.
“The truth is, we would really rather not be here today. As a small, non-profit news organization The Narwhal certainly did not want to have to bring a lengthy, expensive lawsuit against one of the most powerful organizations in the country. But ultimately, we realized we had no other choice. To not move forward with this case, would be to turn our backs on what’s right,” Gilchrist said.
“The lawsuit we filed this morning aims to establish meaningful consequences for police when they interfere with the constitutional rights of journalists covering events in injunction zones.”
The lawsuit also claims special and punitive damages over Bracken’s arrest.
Bracken and Toledano were initially charged with civil contempt of court and conditionally released by a judge three days after their arrests, but the next month, court documents showed the charges would not be pursued.
Opposition among Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs to the 670-kilometre pipeline and surrounding Indigenous rights and title issues sparked rallies and rail blockades across Canada in 2020, while the elected council of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation and others nearby have signed agreements with Coastal GasLink.
“The arrests of Indigenous people on their lands concerns every single person in this country, and should be a matter of public record, not hidden behind police lines,” Gilchrest said.
Global News reached out to the RCMP, who declined to comment as the matter is now before the courts.
— With files from The Canadian Press